Guns, Abortion and Christian Witness

People take part in candlelight vigil following a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg Oregon

People take part in candlelight vigil following a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon October 1, 2015. A gunman opened fire at a community college in southwest Oregon on Thursday, killing nine people and wounding seven others before police shot him to death, authorities said, in the latest mass killing to rock an American campus. REUTERS/Steve Dipaola

When I heard the news about yesterday’s mass shooting in Oregon, I knew what would happen next.  I knew that my Facebook and Twitter feeds would be clogged with my pro-gun control friends sharing their outrage.  I knew I would see an article about what happened in Australia after a mass shooting there 20 years ago.  I knew I would see a ton of gun control articles I’ve seen every time a mass shooting occurs. I knew that my friends on the right would offer prayers for the victims and I knew I would see some article somewhere about how this gun control tactic wouldn’t have stopped the shooter.

It’s interesting that in the same week the GOP hauled Planned Parenthood to the Capital for a show trial congressional hearing, we would also deal with a mass shooting.  I say interesting because these two events highlight our culture which based on rights and not just rights, but maximum rights, body politic be damned.  We live in a country where we place a big emphasis on rights.  That is a good thing in many ways or else I wouldn’t be in a such a good spot being both African American and gay.  But I think at times, we tend to make our rights into idols, things that become sacrosanct to the point that it doesn’t matter if someone gets hurt.

I will say right off the bat that I tend to have libertarian views on social issues, which means that I tend to support gun rights and I’m moderately pro-choice.  But because I am a Christian, neither of those rights can or ever should be absolute.  We also have to think of our fellow person.

Let’s start with abortion.  While many liberals seems to favor restricting if not eliminating gun rights, they tend to want the maximum rights when it comes to abortion.  The old attempt at moderation, keeping abortion “safe, legal and rare” has given way to shouting your abortion. Many European countries have some restrictions on abortions after the first trimester.  But such a law would never pass here.  Liberals don’t want to give an inch to the pro-life side (sometimes with good reason) which means they end up supporting abortion even well into the third trimester.  What is bothersome is the fact that even in the church there is no talk about balancing the needs of the woman and the needs of the growing presence inside of her.

Now to guns.  I don’t think we should ban all guns and I’m not the type that says only law enforcement or the military should have them.  I think there are safe ways to use a gun.  Even though I don’t own one, I have no problem with concealed carry of handguns.  In essence, I think guns are ok to possess.  (You can read about my evolution on guns here.)

That said, having a right to bear arms doesn’t mean not doing anything concerning guns.  I get increasingly bothered by fellow conservatives and libertarians who seem to think that when mass shootings happen, the only thing they can do is offer prayers to those killed and wounded.  That’s cowardly.  There are ways to retain gun rights and have some laws that might prevent mass shootings from happening.  But it’s the same thing as with abortion, the pro-gun side sees limiting rights as the same as surrender.

As a Christian, what should matter is how we treat our neighbors.  Are we treating our fellow human being with respect if just abort fetuses whenever we want or push for extreme gun rights when people are being mowed down?  For Christians, the talk is not about rights as much as it is responsibility; how we treat our sisters and brothers.  And in my opinion, we have ignored this.  As important as rights are, there is a danger inherent with rights, because it is focused on the self.  Legally that is a good thing, but we are not simply Americans, we are also Christians who are called to not live for ourselves.  We are called to live for others and that means thinking about the humans around you. Or inside you.

So as we get on our soapboxes, let’s think about what matters here and who is god.  We should be worshipping God, not Planned Parenthood and the NRA.

 

The Abortion Debate Christians Should Be Having

Planned Parenthood Supporter

Photo by Sarah Mirk.

It’s been interesting seeing the debate rage on about Planned Parenthood and a number of videos that seem to put the organization in a very bad light.  As I read some of the articles condemning the practice retrieving organs from aborted fetuses, I felt a sense of unease.  Like many, I was alarmed by the videos, but reading some of these admittedly pro-life writers I was also feeling that the growing scandal was proof positive that abortion was evil and that it should be banned.  No one said those words, but I could sense them behind the rhetoric.

But the defensiveness of the pro-choice side was also disturbing.  While I tend to lean pro-choice, I believe that abortion is not something to celebrate.  I tend to follow the old maxim of abortion being “safe, legal and rare.” I also think there should be limits on when abortion in permissable, similar to what goes on many European countries.

What was missing from the argument is how hard this issue is.  Two lives hang in the balance; the woman who is deciding to keep or abort the baby and the growing fetus.  But the hallmark of the debate is focused on extending maximum and absolute rights to their side.  Pro-life advocates want to focus on the growing cluster of cells in the woman’s body to the exclusion of the woman it seems.  Pro-choicers tend to focus on the reproductive rights of the woman, but ignore the fetus.

Christians on both sides of the debate spout the predictable lines and none of it is helpful to dealing with this complex and difficult issue.  If pro-lifers think Planned Parenthood and other abortion rights supporters are butchers, while pro-choicers think the pro-life movement is filled with hypocrites more concerned with a clump of cells than with the women or the children if she chooses to give birth.

What’s missing from this debate is theology.  What does it mean to be human in the Christian sense?  What is the theological value of the woman carrying the fetus?  What is the theological value of the fetus itself?  None of these questions mean that you can or can’t have an abortion, but it does cause us to think about where God and God’s ways fit in all of this instead of having God just be a cheerleader for either side.

While it is not theological in scope, writer Damon Linker was able to shed more light than heat in the current debate in his most recent column.  While his argument isn’t theological per se, he does get at the heart of the issue: life and death.  He starts off:

Here is the truth about abortion: It kills an unborn baby. We all know this — and with continuing advances in ultrasound technology, it’s something we know with greater and greater certainty all the time.

This is one of the things that makes the decision to seek an abortion so emotionally fraught and morally wrenching for most women — because an abortion kills an unborn human being, and we normally believe that human beings possess intrinsic moral dignity or worth and therefore have a right to life, no matter how small or helpless they are.

Of course a baby in the womb differs from most other human beings in residing within and being completely dependent upon another human being with rights of her own. This creates the potential for a tragic, irresolvable moral trade-off between the good of the baby (his or her life) and the good of the pregnant woman (her liberty).

One of the things that frustrates me with the pro-choice side is their view of the fetus. My own view is that whether or not one decides to abort the fetus, you are killing something that in a few months becomes a living, breathing person. It might not be totally human yet, but it will in time. Knowing this is what makes that fetus more than a clump of cells. Christians believe that humans are created in the image of God, meaning that God places high value on humans. Again, none this says have an abortion or don’t have one. But as Christians, we must understand that what is going on inside the mother has value. To borrow a phrase from Death of a Salesman, attention must be paid.

But the woman carrying the fetus is also of value and worth.  She was also created in the likeness of God.  She is also worthy of dignity at a very delicate time in her life.

Notice what I haven’t said here so far; I haven’t used the word rights. It’s not that the term shouldn’t be included in the debate; it’s just that as Christians, we have to deal with more than rights; we have to talk about how to deal with these two beings, the fetus and the woman as creations of God.

Damon notes that both sides tend to favor some kind of maximum rights for their side.  So, on the pro-choice side it can mean abortion at any time for any reason.  On the pro-life side it can mean making the baby central with the woman off to the side.  Damon notes that in many European nations there has been a balancing between the status of the woman and the fetus/baby:

In Europe abortion is legal and easily available nearly everywhere through 12 weeks of pregnancy. After that, countries vary in their restrictions, with most limiting access to abortion as the pregnancy approaches 20 weeks, and a few allowing a woman to terminate a pregnancy as late as 24 weeks — which is right around the time when the baby becomes viable outside the womb.

That makes considerable moral sense. Tacitly acknowledging the tragic trade-offs involved in abortion, it balances the rights of the woman against the rights of the baby. At the start of pregnancy, long before viability, the woman is sovereign. But as the fetus approaches the capacity to survive outside the womb, the woman’s sovereignty reaches its limits and her rights give way to those of the baby.

If as Christians we believe both beings are created in the likeness of God and worth value and dignity, then this should be at least the best of a hard situation. It takes both sides to heart and tries to balance both sides.

I doubt we will have a European style solution to the abortion debate.  But nevertheless, as Christians we need to talk to each other and grapple with the theological implications of this all- because if there is any situation where we need to look at a public policy issue through God’s eyes this is it.

I don’t know if I do justice to speaking theologically about this issue, but I hope that we will start doing this as Christians.  Abortion is too important an issue to leave to the partisans.

Marching for Sandwiches, Marcus Borg and Civility

Social media lit up yesterday after the Director of Civil and Human Rights in the  United Methodist Church decided to hold up a sign on Thursday during the March of Life.  Bill Mefford held up a sign that said “I March for Sandwiches” with the marchers for the March for Life in the background.  A number of pro life folk were upset and wondered why Mefford wasn’t marching for real.  I’m not here to talk about abortion.  (I tend to be in the “mushy middle” on abortion, I tend to see it not as a “good,” but something that might have to be used in either tragic or desparate circumstances.)  I want to talk about the lack respect that is found at time from progressive Christians when they encounter people that they don’t agree with.

Mefford apologized for his stunt.  Via Rod Dreher, Mefford wrote:

It seems my picture of me holding a sign that said “I March for Sandwiches” has been taken entirely out of context and has caused quite a stir among some in the Twitter and social media world. I tend to hate general apologies – when people say they are sorry for “whatever they may have done that offended people.” I don’t think those are very sincere.

I also want to say that when I was at the event holding my sign I received nothing but laughter and cheers. Making folks laugh was my sole intent – it really was! It was afterward when this started making the rounds on social media that the hurt and anger began to rise. I understand why people are angry.

So, I am deeply sorry for the hurt and anger that this has caused people since the event. I honestly love to make people laugh and think, and the hurt and anger that people are feeling is not something I enjoy. At all.

A reader on Mefford’s blog responded:

Bill, thanks for your apology. I’m all for humor, but next time you should remember the golden rule. Ask yourself this: how would you have responded if the marchers in Ferguson or New York this past fall had been met with mockery? I suspect you would not have appreciated it. Even if one disagreed with them, the seriousness of the situation demanded respect. Same with the March for Life.

It’s good that Mefford apologized, but his antics are not that unusual in progressive circles.  More and more I keep seeing some of my friends and colleagues show more conservative evangelicals nothing but mockery and disdain.  I never understood this lack of respect.  I grew up in evangelicalism.  There are things about it that I don’t feel comfortable doing anymore and viewpoints that I no longer agree with.  Some contemporary Christian music is not so good to listen to 25 years later.  I will disagree with many evangelicals over the role of openly gay people in the life of the church.  But I don’t want to disrespect them.  After all, I would not be the Christian that I am today if it were not for my evangelical upbrining.

Mefford might have been trying to make a joke, but that joke didn’t come accross to many folk who are pro-life as a joke they could laugh with.  In their eyes, a joke was being made at their expense.

I’ve been around enough to know the snickers that come up when talking about someone who might have a more conservative faith than ourselves.  In some ways it shows how progressive Christians aren’t as inclusive as they claim.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include that some of the people complaining about Mefford’s stunt weren’t anymore tolerant of other’s beliefs.  Reading Matthew Schmitz’s response to Mefford you can tell he has very little if any respect for Christians and other who might be pro-choice.  Respect is a two-way street, Matthew.

How do we encounter and deal with people who have different beliefs?  We all give lip service to being able to listen and welcoming opposing views, but in reality, we don’t have much patience in our modern society for those that don’t conform to whatever is the status quo in our world.

Which is why Mefford’s stunt is bothersome.  Maybe it was an attempt at humor, but really was that the place to do it?  If someone held up a similar card in Ferguson, MO or in any number of cities where folks gathered to protest police brutality, I don’t think a lot of people would be laughing and for good reason.

What the joke showed was that Mefford didn’t think what was going on before him was worth any thought.  He may have not meant it this way, but his actions said that the pro-life marchers weren’t worthy of respect.

In our social media age,  we can segregate ourselves into walled silos where we don’t have to engage people with different opinions as…well, people. We can treat them as abstractions, caritchures, gross exaggerations of who they are really.

This past week, many in the Christian community were stunned by the sudden death of theologian Marcus Borg.  What was so interesting to see in the hours following the news was the accolades coming not simply from those who agreed with him, but from those who disagreed with him.  This is what Methodist blogger David Watson had to say, revealing a little about Borg’s true character:

With Borg’s passing, we lose another of a great generation of liberals. I don’t mean liberal in the sense of his theology or ethics, though he fit quite well within the world of existentialist and process theology. (Just read his book, The God We Never Knew.) I mean that you could dialogue with him. He was liberal in an older sense of that term as applied to academics. You could have respectful disagreement with him. To my knowledge, he did not belittle his opponents or caricature their positions. His work with N. T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, is a model of respectful disagreement and discourse. Borg was truly a gentleman and a scholar.

I read his book with N.T. Wright a few years ago for a Sunday School class I was co-leading.  I tend to favor N.T. Wright’s more orthodox views over Borg’s but I was struck about how the book was really a conversation between friends, not enemies.  Maybe it was that friendly spirit that allowed me to see that Borg did have a few good points to make in the book.

As Watson notes, Borg was someone you could diaglogue with.  Christian conservatives have never been the best dialogue partners, but liberals were supposed to be the ones that craved it.  Sadly that’s becoming less the case these days.

In the wake of Borg’s passing, maybe we should be willing to share his large spirit.  Maybe we should be willing to sit down and converse with someone, not to prove them wrong, but to understand them. Pro-choice and pro-life Christians should be able to disagree and yet get to know and respect each other.  Pro-gay and traditionalist Christians should have a meal together.  Evangelicals and Progressives should do a mission project together.

I don’t know what would happen if we did that.  Maybe we would start to see the other as a person, a person that might frustrate us, but a person that God made nevertheless.

May the spirit of Marcus Borg live on in us as we encounter the other.

Musings on the Hobby Lobby Affair

HobbyLobbyStowOhioSo, as we all know, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Olkahoma based Hobby Lobby in a case involving the affordable care act.  The family owned company sued the government saying that being forced to pay for certain birth control violated their religious freedom.

Before I get to the imbroglio, I wanted to share my own views on this, limited as they might be.  When this suit first went to trial I thought it made sense that Hobby Lobby not be able to drop health care when it violates religious beliefs.  It’s not for any ideological issues, just that if every company could decide to opt for religious reasons, we would have chaos.  However, after learning more about the case, I think that the decision reached was appropriate. It was tailored very narrowly to the issue at hand and Hobby Lobby wasn’t asking to ban all birth control, just 4 out of 20 that were in the view of the Green family (Hobby Lobby’s owners) what has been called abortificients.  I don’t have to agree with the Green family’s view on birth control, but I do see the logic in this case.

So, now that that was done, let’s talk about  how Christians have reacted to this.

One of the critiques against the Progressive Christianity is that it seems to only exist to combat Evangelical/Fundamentalist Christianity.  I don’t think that’s totally true, but it is really close.

Knowing many progressive Christians, I have followed their reactions on this decision and it was all against Hobby Lobby.If you want to know why I tend to have a tenuous relationship with Progressive Christianity, one doesn’t have go any further than the response to the decision.  Progressive Christians are very good in telling everyone that they should live a certain way when following Jesus.  I agree; I just wished they would practice it.

More and more, I’ve come to believe that Progressive Christians really, really hate evangelical Christians.  Any talk of religious liberty by evangelicals has to be nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse to discriminate.  No thought is given to how some Christians might have to go against their consciences.  There never seems to be any thought in some form of pluralism, to allow people with different views to live along side the majority in peace.  No, it seems at the times that I guess I prefer to give the other side the benefit of the doubt.  Yes, there are people who will want to take advantage of kindness and we do need to be vigilant, but do we have to treat the other side with such contempt?

Maybe what bothers so much is that Progressive Christians seem to see faith as nothing more than a hobby, something we do in our spare time from real life.  There is no questioning, especially on religious grounds, about birth control.  No, I am not suggesting that we should be against it, but shouldn’t there be some talk about the wisdom of some forms of birth control and how they do or don’t run counter to our Christian faith?  Hobby Lobby was willing to allow other forms of birth control and refused to support the others because it felt like an abortion which they are against.  So it seems like the conservative Christians we lash out against were more thoughtful and discerning than the Progressive Christians who are supposed to be more mindful. Hobby Lobby wins the right to not cover 4 versions of birth control and it’s treated like we are seeing the beginning of Republic of Gilead.

Moving forward, there will be more clashes. Same sex marriage, abortion and other sexually-related issues will pit religious liberty against sexual rights.  Right now, progressives are treating it like a zero-sum game; we win, they lose.  I think we have to find ways to allow conservatives the freedom to live as they believe without harming my freedom as a gay man.  There is something rather unChristian about forcing people to violate their consciences just because we don’t like their views.

Ross Douthat wrote in a recent op-ed about a company that was given high praise by a liberal think tank for its socially conscious actions.  It’s not Whole Foods or Ben and Jerry’s.  It’s…..Hobby Lobby, the same company that is being demonized this week.  Douthat notes the drive to push faith out of the public square can makes us a less vibrant and just society.  Sometimes the people we don’t agree with can be the ones who save us- if we let them.

 

 

 

Abortion and the Balance

Rachel Held Evans asks her fellow progressive Christians to start caring about abortion in light of the Kermit Gosnell case:

It seems to me that Christians who are more conservative and Christians who are more liberal, Christians who are politically pro-life and Christians who are politically pro-choice,  should be able to come together on this and advocate for life in a way that takes seriously the complexities involved and that honors both women and their unborn children.

Read the whole thing.  It’s a good take on how Christians regardless of their views on abortion should tackle this issue.

What Joe Paterno and Kermit Gosnell Have In Common

man covering eyesLike a lot of folks, I’ve been following the whole story on the role of the media concerning abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell.  There’s a lot to said about media ethics and double standards.

Last night, I watched a Huff Post Live segment on the case, which I consider some of the best coverage I’ve seen so far.  What made it so good was the honesty of the host, Marc Lamont Hill  and the Pennsylvania State Representative Margo Davidson, who lost a relative from actions at Gosnell’s clinic.  Hill goes to the heart of the matter:

“For what it’s worth, I do think that those of us on the left have made a decision not to cover this trial because we worry that it’ll compromise abortion rights. Whether you agree with abortion or not, I do think there’s a direct connection between the media’s failure to cover this and our own political commitments on the left. I think it’s a bad idea, I think it’s dangerous, but I think that’s the way it is.”

But Davidson was the one who brought in another scandal that took place in Pennsylvania, the Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal.  I don’t have the transcript, but what I remember is that she thought that at some point, people see the survival of the institution or cause as paramount over people.  Penn State coach Joe Paterno and others, worked hard to cover up the abuse of minors in order to protect the football program.  Davidson believes that the reason the Gosnell case has been under the radar is because many journalists who happen to be pro-choice chose to ignore the case in order to protect the cause and not give pro-lifers an edge.

A side note here:  I am pro-choice, or as former Secretary of State Condi Rice has said “moderately pro-choice.”  I don’t think outlawing abortion will make it go away.  That said, I want to make abortion “safe, legal and rare.”

I could go into a long diatribe about how liberals don’t pay attention to their own stink in their backyards while they are attacking conservatives for their garbage.  But frankly, this is far more than an ideological story.  It’s a human story.  It’s story of how we tend to place faith in institutions and causes than we do in God and in caring for people around us.  Unlike a lot of folks on the pro-life side, I don’t think pro-choicers are horrible people.  But then, I don’t think the guys in the Penn State program were necessarily monsters either.  But they expose our own moral duplicity, our willingness to look at the specks in others eyes and ignore the big log in your own eye.

I think in our media age, we are wired to look at the Other as something weird and scary. We are told to focus our energies on exposing the other.  It’s far easier to look at someone else’s faults than it is to focus on the faults taking place in your own home.  Many in the media and pro-choice movement have not wanted to face Gosnell, because it was lead to some very comfortable questions.  It would lead to the other side to self-righteously condemn the movement as a whole.  It would cause an embarassment.

So, we ignore what’s going on.  We ignore the women of color who faced unsanitary conditions. We ignore some of the gruesome procedures.  We hope people will move on or not even realize what’s going on.

It’s happened before.  We ignore young boys being sodomized by football coaches and priests.  We bury stories. We force people into conspiracies of silence.

Nearly two years ago, I wrote this about Joe Paterno:

Joe Paterno and others at Penn State should have done more than what they did and it makes sense that he had to lose his job for failing to do the moral thing. But there are reasons why they probably didn’t and they are reasons that you and I would do the same thing.

None of this is to say that lying to ourselves is okay. But it does show us that we are all fallible beings and it is so easy to just ignore the steaming pile of crap in front of us instead of trying to clean it up.

The thing that is so frustrating about the Gosnell case isn’t the silence of media; no, the frustrating thing is that this won’t be the last cover-up.  Someone somewhere will do it again.  We will pretend to not see the sin and tell people that there is nothing special going on.

What matters here is not that the media is bad; what matters here is how easy it is for all of us to just walk on by injustice.  What matters is that you and I are just a step away of doing the same thing.

God help us.

h/t: Michael Kruse

Ceasar and the Pill

So, I’m going to treat into the waters of the birth control vs. religious liberty debate that has been going on for a while.  I’ve been wondering how Christians should handle this issue. Now, I tend think birth control is a good idea.  Teenage pregnancy is not a good thing and well, women should be able to decide when they want children and when they don’t.

That said, I was distrubed by the decision by Health and Human Services to mandate that religious institutions with the exception of churches have to cover birth control.  This didn’t disturb me because I think birth control is wrong; it bothered me because it harmed religious freedom.  While I think that birth control is a good idea and doesn’t clash with my faith, I do know there are others that see birth control in a different light.  I don’t agree with their view, but I do believe they have prayerfully come to their decision and it should be respected within reason.

Another view that comes to the fore are those who are Christians and are very much for reproductive rights.  I’m not talking about people like myself that tend to favor reproductive rights but are kind of lukewarm about their beliefs; no, I’m talking about folks who are just as militantly pro-choice as those on the other side are as militantly pro-life.  That side doesn’t get as much attention, but they are out there.  Presbyterian Pastor Carol Howard Merritt is an example.  She writes in a recent essay that God is definitely pro-choice:

This week has been dominated by religious voices speaking out against contraception. I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise since Christianity has been controlled by men for over 2,000 years, and there has been a strong belief in both Catholic and Protestant traditions that women were created solely for childbirth. But there are way too many voices, speaking in the name of God, who target health services for women, and especially poor women.

As people of faith, we need to make our voices on behalf of women clear.

I believe in religious freedom. I believe that Muslim women should be allowed to wear a burka if that is her choice. I believe that a Catholic woman should not use contraception if that is her choice. But I resent the loud and constant religious voice that threatens the rights of women.

There is another voice. We aren’t hearing it much in this national dialogue, but there are women and men of faith who believe that women are created for more than bearing children. We support contraception and women’s healthcare.

God is concerned with the health of women. God cares about teenagers who end up in a lifetime of poverty. Jesus healed the bleeding woman two thousand years ago, and I think if he walked the streets today, he just might hand her a packet of pink pills.

I find the last sentence in this quote kind of fascinating, because I think it sums up what I think is so wrong about this debate. We as Christians are missing the boat if we think the question we need to ask is if Jesus would hand out birth control.  As much as I think the pill is a good idea, we are asking the wrong question. 

The issues at hand is how Christians should respond to the Ceasars of this world and a lack of understanding concerning the Other. 

The Church in American society is many ways nothing more than the red-blue divide dressed up in nice church clothes.  We make God a cheerleader for our side instead of learning to discern where God can be found.  We are quick to demonize those who don’t share our viewpoints instead of seeing them  as fellow questors in faith.

Then there’s the issue of how the Church deals with Ceasar, or the government.  It’s interesting how we support or don’t support the government based on who is in power.  Conservative Christians are now complaining  about how the Obama Adminstration is dealing with them, bringing up cries of religious liberty.  However, will they do the same thing when a Republican President does something that seems to infringe on liberties?  I doubt it. 

Meanwhile Liberal Christians, who during the Bush years were constantly talking about the how Bush was shredding the Constitution, have no problem telling religious institutions to stuff it and pay for something that goes against their conscience.

We are willing to stand against Ceasar, so long as he is of the other party.

Maybe I’m silly, but I think there has to be a better way to deal with this issue than shouting that God would or would not give out birth control pills.  I’d like believe that Christians would have a way of being in the world that would reflect different values, something that would make people notice.

But as usual, what I’d like to believe is just flat out wrong.